The Met and Antiquities

On this most recent NY trip, I also went to the Metropolitan Museum, a vast sprawling complex with incredible collection. It’s probably one of my favorite museums in the world (but not number 1, that’s the British Museum).

One of my area interest that I casually study is the ethics of antiquities. I find the whole argument about who owns antiquities fascinating. There is a huge battle going on with Greece, Italy, Egypt and others about reclaiming the ancient artifacts of their nations. There have been scandals and lawsuits and general drama. But it really brings up interesting questions about ownership of the past and present.

Object based history is also fascinating to me since it allows you to look at a fixed item through many decades or centuries, depending on the object. There is how the object was used in its time; how it was used since then and how it is viewed now. Or if the object is perishable like spices or dyes, it allows you to delve into the dynamics of the era it was used in a way that people based histories just don’t seem to work as well.

Anyway, I’ve given two lectures on the Parthenon marbles and Rosetta Stone, which are extremely cool items. Both are at the British Museum and have amazing histories of how they were found, used, and now argued about. The former was ripped out of the Parthenon and the former was found as part of a building, clearly being reused. THe Rosetta stone was a spoil of war (English got it over the French) and it was used to decode hieroglyphics.

So the Metropolian Museum is one museum that runs into a fair amount of trouble with respect to antiquities. A “dissident curator” at the Met, Oscar White Muscarella calls the Roman and Greek galleries “The Temple of Plunder” (Sharon Waxman, Loot 182). One of the arguments made by the Met and other similar institutions is that these artifacts are necessary for the encyclopedic museum. The idea is that these items themselves aren’t sufficient but in context with other cultures. You can’t understand the Greeks without the Egyptians and the Assyrians. The British Museum exemplified that with its’ History of the World in 100 Objects series.

While there are many compelling arguments for returning artifacts to their ancient lands, there is something to this argument. This especially came home to me when I was at the Met. In the American galleries,  I saw Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Egyptian column, inlaid with iridescent mosaic pieces. And then I wandered into the Egyptian galleries and saw the actual column that inspired this 19th/20th century work. One was sandy colored carved stone, a testament to durability, while the other was covered in beautiful glass that shimmered. I could see how the aesthetic of 1000s year old piece inspired the more recent one. It deepened my appreciation for both works.

But that’s one small piece of a larger puzzle about antiquities and ethics.


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